TAMPA, Fla.—Three days after a bruising defeat in South Carolina, Mitt Romney delivered a “prebuttal” to President Obama’s State of the Union address in a defunct drywall plant. The venue was meant to symbolize the administration’s empty economic promises, but the echo of Romney’s voice inside the vast, vacant warehouse instead seemed to reflect his sapped momentum heading into Tuesday’s GOP primary. The supportive but less-than-exuberant audience of about 150 people also looked ominously puny next to the thousands of people who flocked to rallies for rival Newt Gingrich on the same day in Sarasota and Naples.
If Gingrich can keep his hot streak going through Tuesday’s vote—a big if, considering the former House speaker’s frequent lack of discipline—he could burn through Romney’s Florida firewall, built with a multimillion-dollar television sweep and a superior ground game. Television dominates in a state this big, but in a presidential race, free media exposure dilutes the weight of paid ads. The latest polls indicate a tight race. “There is an intensity surge for Gingrich, and you can’t underestimate the difference that will make on Election Day,” said a neutral Republican pollster, Tony Fabrizio, who worked on Gov. Rick Scott’s winning campaign in 2010.
A Gingrich triumph would look like a replay of the GOP’s 2008 Florida primary, in which John McCain rode a wave from his South Carolina victory to overtake Romney’s more robust campaign on the air and the ground in Florida. “Momentum can trump organization,” said Arlene DiBenigno, who led McCain’s campaign in the state. “We didn’t have the structure or money or staff that Romney had, but we got it done.” In 2012, as in 2008, only 10 days separate the two contests, leaving the runners-up from South Carolina little time to rebound.
What Gingrich shares with the senator from Arizona—along with subsequent winners of statewide Republican races in Florida, such as Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio—is the image of insurgency. Sure, the former House speaker is as much a member of the party establishment as Scott (a rich corporate executive) and Rubio (a former leader of the Florida House and a prodigy of former Gov. Jeb Bush). But they all branded their opponents as cozy insiders, playing to a tea party-steeped electorate. “Clearly the more populist wing of the party in Florida is speaking at a higher decibel,” said Al Cardenas, a former state Republican Party chairman who now heads the American Conservative Union.
Recent statewide races show that the GOP electorate is veering rightward and venting outrage. Scott, a leading opponent of Obama’s health care law, faced off in the 2010 primary against Bill McCollum, the state attorney general, whose long career in Congress had made him as comfortable in Republican circles as an old sofa. Scott also used a hard-line stance against illegal immigration as a battle cry that resonated in Florida’s conservative enclaves.
Rubio, a young Cuban-American from Miami, channeled the energy of the burgeoning tea party movement to swipe the Senate nomination in 2010 from the once-popular Gov. Charlie Crist. The governor’s early endorsement by the national Republican Party turned into an albatross in an election year when the political establishment became the leading public enemy.
Gingrich has similarly positioned himself as the outsider through a series of scrappy debate performances, his history as a revolutionary House member from Georgia who led the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, and his characterization of Romney as a corporate elitist. (See “Return of the Revolutionary.”)
But Romney’s hard-hitting media blitz tarring Gingrich as a Washington insider who “cashed in” with mortgage lender Freddie Mac “while Florida families lost everything” could slow the former speaker’s surge. Moreover, Gingrich has a long history of proving more successful at storming the barricades than at ruling the castle. Signs of potential trouble started to emerge on Wednesday, when he was forced to back away from a radio ad calling Romney “anti-immigrant” and from a line of attack linking Romney to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Two surveys released late Wednesday showed Romney up by 8 percentage points, raising questions about whether Gingrich’s support was ebbing. The fallout from Thursday’s debate and the final weekend on the campaign trail will determine whether Florida blows up Romney’s once-inevitable path to the nomination or puts him back on track.
WHAT FLORIDA WANTS
Until Obama rewrote the playbook winning Florida in the 2008 general election, the GOP’s well-funded, well-oiled political machine dominated recent statewide races. The party tapped influential money bundlers, targeted voters who requested absentee ballots, and mobilized its troops on Election Day. Organization and money mattered, evidenced by the expert campaigns waged by Jeb Bush for governor and George W. Bush for president.
This article appears in the January 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.